ELGIN — Rich Cason of Elgin is a delightful paradox — a warm-hearted man with more than four decades of stories to share about 10 cold-blooded pets.
Cason, a retired educator, is one of the few in Union County who can claim to own a pet timber rattlesnake, one of 10 he has had over the past 46 years. His current rattler, Floyd the Ripper II, lives in an aquarium in his toolshed. Floyd the Ripper is a reptilian guard dog, greeting everyone who enters, including Cason, with a daunting rattle.
“Nobody ever steals my tools. In fact, nobody even borrows them,” Cason said during a recent presentation to the Union County Historical Society in La Grande.
The retired educator often kept one of his rattlesnakes in his classroom in the Echo School District, where he taught for 17 years in the 1970s and ’80s.
“My students were really interested in them, all the time,” Cason said.
While the students never tired of the rattlers, the snakes sometimes appeared to grow weary of young people peering at them and became unresponsive.
“They would go dormant,” Cason said.
He recalled once replacing a weary classroom snake with another rattler he owned. The newcomer brought a double-espresso level of energy.
“He would shake, rattle and roll,” Cason said. “The kids loved it.”
One year, Cason said, he took his Echo students to the Blue Mountain Community College library where they spent hours looking up information on rattlesnakes for reports they were writing. The students jumped into the project with zest, almost too much.
“They were having so much fun that I had to offer them ice cream cones to get them to leave,” Cason said.
The principals Cason worked with at Echo included a man whose heeled shoes created a district vibration. The rattlesnake Cason then had in his classroom was adept at detecting this vibration.
“He would begin rattling when the principal was at least 20 feet from my classroom,” Cason said.
This always gave Cason time to get his students to quiet down and be seated at their desks before the principal walked in.
“I always got high marks (from the principal) for classroom management. The principal could never understand how I got my kids to stay so quiet,” Cason said.
He joked that he had an invention of sorts.
“It was a principal alarm,” he said. “I should have patented it.”
Cason worked in the Echo School District for 23 years, the last six as an administrator. He later served as principal in the John Day and Monument school districts before becoming superintendent of the North Powder School District in 1991, where he worked for two years before retiring.
The educator grew close to his students at every stop.
“I couldn’t bring myself to go to graduation ceremonies because I didn’t want to say good-bye to them,” Cason said.
Rattlesnakes are easy to care for, Cason said, since they eat only two mice a month. They can be a bit finicky, though, and prefer their mice — which Cason buys frozen — a bit toasty.
“Sometimes they will not eat them unless I zap them for a few seconds in the microwave,” Cason said.
The Elgin resident has seen rattlers in the wild eat animals much larger than mice. He said he’s observed snakes eating small squirrels whole.
“Some have been as big as your wrist or better,” he said.
Cason said he marvels at the digestive systems of rattlers.
“It is amazing how they can digest the bones and teeth of an animal,” he said.
According to Cason, the best places to find rattlers in Union County include the Hamburger Hill area about two miles south of Elgin, Cricket Flat and the Catherine Creek area.
Cason has never been bitten by a rattlesnake, but one did try to attack him once when he was riding a horse with his dog walking beside him.
“He was coming right at us,” he said.
Undeterred, Cason got off his horse and struck it with a bullwhip to kill it.
Cason said he has found rattlesnakes to be unpredictable and to have varying personalities.
“Some are docile and some very cranky,” he said. “The one I have now is very cranky.”
All of the rattlers Cason has had he captured on his own. He caught Floyd the Ripper II by lassoing it with bailing string, to the amazement of a friend who was looking on.
Cason smiled when he recalled, “He said, ‘I thought you were crazy before, but now I know for sure.’”